This was not just an armed, bloody struggle between fighting men. It was one of the classic victories in military history. Carthage’s general Hannibal (q.v.) faced a Roman army with larger infantry units, but Hannibal had more cavalry, well-trained and armed horsemen, kept out of sight. The armies were engaged at the village of Cannae, in southern Italy.
Hannibal stationed his foot-soldiers in a narrow crescent formation, and the densely packed Roman soldiers, commanded by consuls Aemilius Paulus and Terrentius Vallo charged in a great, confident, shouting mass, straight at the centre of this crescent. The sheer force of the charge forced the crescent backwards, but did not break it.
The Romans pushed harder, and the Carthaginians appeared to retreat under pressure. It was then that the genius of Hannibal became clear. It was the theory of the double encirclement.
Now his cavalry, having defeated both right and left wings of the Roman divisions, closed the mouth of the trap and were able to assault the legions from both right and left flanks and the rear. The Romans had had nearly fifty thousand soldiers before the battle of Cannae began, of which they lost approximately thirty-five thousand killed or captured (which in the period about which I write usually meant the same thing).
Hannibal lost less than four thousand men. Before this battle Rome had an iron grip on Italy as a whole, but after it that hold became shaky. Many of Rome’s allies in central and south Italy defected to the Carthaginians. For the moment, anyway, Hannibal as strategist and able commander remained supreme.